MOSCOW — A deep-seated distrust of foreigners is making it difficult for immigrants to fill a vacuum created by Russia’s plunging population — the result of suicide, alcoholism, disease and declining birthrates.
Economists say Russia cannot maintain its standard of living — or even populate its remote provinces — without an influx of immigrants to make up for the shortage of native-born residents. But polling shows most Russians want immigration reduced, despising the newcomers as a source of crime and competition for jobs.
“There is an irrational fear of immigrants in our country,” says Anatoly Vishnevsky, the director of the Moscow-based Center for Demography and Human Ecology. “While our government formally understands the necessity of immigration, it also knows it would be very unpopular. … Immigration is the only hope for the future of our country.”
A World Bank report released early this month estimated that Russia’s population will drop by 17 percent by 2050, from 144 million to 119 million. The United Nations has forecast an even more dramatic population loss to 112 million by 2050.
“To compensate for this, Russia would need an annual inflow of 1 million immigrants, which is three times the average official annual flow over the last 15 years and five times the official flow in recent years,” the World Bank stated.
But that logic has not penetrated to two dozen young activists from the nationalistic Motherland Party who last month acted out their contempt for foreigners on a Moscow street.
Dressed in the robes and skullcaps typical of immigrants from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, the activists pretended to be selling worm-filled meat patties and a liquid labeled “donkey urine.” One activist drove off the mock traders with a long broom while others shouted “Moscow for Muscovites,” and “foreigners go home.”
The hostility is not confined to street theater. Foreign students have been attacked repeatedly in recent years, with prosecutors in the central city of Voronezh reporting about 100 crimes against foreigners in the region this year.
An 18-year-old Peruvian student was killed last month in the city and a medical student from Guinea-Bissau was killed last year. In September, a 29-year-old Congolese student was killed in St. Petersburg.
In a poll of 1,600 Russians this past summer, 63 percent blamed immigrants for rising crime and 60 percent said they were stealing jobs from Russian citizens. Forty percent supported toughening Russia’s already-strict immigration rules.
Russia’s population decline accelerated with the breakup of the Soviet Union, which brought widespread poverty and social upheaval, meaning fewer families could afford to support more than one child. At the same time, alcoholism, poor diet and high levels of suicide and accidental death have dramatically shortened the average life span, especially for men.
Death rates are soaring for stroke, lung cancer, stomach cancer, tuberculosis and heart disease, which was Russia’s top killer last year. Specialists are saying Russia is also on the verge of a major AIDS epidemic, with more than 250,000 Russians expected to die every year from the disease by 2020.
Average life expectancy for a Russian man is 58.6 years, lower than in Bangladesh and down from 63.4 years in 1990. The average Russian woman lives 73 years. American life expectancy is at 74.7 years for men and 79.8 years for women.
In the mid-1990s, life expectancy began to rise, peaking at 60 years in 1998 before an economic crisis sent it plunging again.
A Russian Health Ministry report said Russia’s population fell by more than 500,000 during the first eight months of 2005, the steepest peacetime decline to date.